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Why I Came to America: More Folk Music of the Ottoman​-​American Diaspora, ca. 1917​-​47

by Canary Records



This is the tenth hour of the music that I have made available on bandcamp to date of recordings from the early 20th century by immigrants to the United States from what I have called “the Ottoman-American diaspora” – speakers, in particular, of Turkish, Greek, Armenian, and Arabic. Speakers of Albanian, Bulgarian, Judeo-Spanish, and Assyrian Neo-Aramaic, could also be classified within this set of immigrants; some of them have been represented elsewhere or will be represented in future projects.
Biographical and discographical details on many – although not all - of the performers can be found elsewhere among my other releases. In this instance, I am providing extended quotations from several early 20th century books that will provide a sense of the social and mental atmosphere in which the artists on these recordings lived:

“An immigrant who applies for admission to the United States, and who has met all other conditions, should possess two outstanding moral qualities which radical tests should be capable of judging definitely. The first of these qualities is ‘a real desire to be an American,’ to give up the old ways of life and adopt the American way. If these ways do not appeal to the would-be immigrant he should not attempt to migrate hither. The second quality is an innate one; it requires that the immigrant must be made out of inborn stuff that when subjected to American environment he readily adopts the American pattern and proceeds to live in the American way.
[…] The individual citizen of the United States, as of every other immigrant-receiving country, must add immigration concerns to his active list of matters which require ‘eternal vigilance,’ if he is to guard the racial and family-stock endowments of a nation, as well as to insure his own personal liberty. The American people might well foster a more active and serious consideration of their population ideals, and particularly of the racial and family consequences of immigration of known kind, time and numbers; and should actively support and enforce their own self-determined immigration policy.
Immigration into the nation is closely comparable with marriage of the marriageable youth of the family. Neither is a thing to be determined primarily for immediate position or economic advance. In the long run both for the family and the nation the addition – the acceptance of the outside individual – should depend on the hereditary stuff – physical, mental and moral – out of which the newly added group-member is made.
A period of economic depression and unemployment is an excellent time for an immigrant-receiving country like the United States to take stock of its recent past immigration, to deport radically unworthy and inadequate aliens, and to work out the assimilation of those individuals and families whom it desires to add to its future population as progenitors of future Americans.”
Harry H. Laughlin, Conquest by Immigration (The Special Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York), 1939.

“When the editor told me that he would give me the chance to speak to the Americans out of my heart and say freely, not what I ought to feel – not what Americans want me to feel – but what I actually do feel – something broke loose inside me – a tightness that had held me strained like one whose fists are clenched – resisting – resisting –
Resisting what? Had I not come to America with open, outstretched arms all of my earthly possessions tied up in a hankerchief and all hopes of humanity singing in my heart?
Had I not come to join hands with all the thousands of dreamers who had gone before me in search of the Golden Land? As I rushed forward with hungry eagerness to meet the expected welcoming, the very earth danced under my feet. All that I was, all that I had, I held out in my bare hands to America, the beloved, the prayed for land.
But no hand was held out to meet mine. My eyes burned with longing – seeking – seeking for a comprehending glance. Where are the dreamers? cried my heart. My hands dropped down, my gifts unwanted.
I found no dreamers in America. I found rich men, poor men, educated men, ignorant men – struggling – all struggling – for bread, for rent, for banks, for mines. Rich and poor, educated and ignorant – straining – straining – wearing out their bodies, their brains, for the possession of things – money, power, position – their dreams forgotten.
I found in this rich land man still fighting man, as in the poorest part of the old country. Just as the starving Roumanian Jews, who had nothing to eat in their homeland but herring, when they became millionaires still ate herring from gold plates from banquets, so throughout America, the dollar fight that grew up like a plague in times of poverty, killing the souls of men, still goes on in times of plenty.
I had expected to work in America, but work at the thing I loved – work with my mind, my heart, prepared for my work by education. I had dreamed of free schools, free colleges, where I could learn to give out my innermost thoughts and feelings to the world. But no sooner did I come off the ship than hunger drove me to the sweat-shop, to become a ‘hand’ – not a brain – not a soul – not a spirit – but just a ‘hand’ – cramped, deadened into part of a machine – a hand fit only to grasp, not to give.”
Anzia Yezierska, Good Housekeeping, June 1920, reprinted in Children of Loneliness: Stories of Immigrant Life in America (Funk & Wagnalls), 1923.

“Sometimes I think democracy has succeeded too well. It has made success possible to people who did not deserve it. They found freedom here and thought it was only to fulfill their own selfish desires. They used, or rather abused, freedom to achieve power, and now they want to use their power to destroy that freedom.”
Salom Rizk, Syrian Yankee (Doubleday), 1943.

“Since we had no idea where we wanted to go, the cabby too us to Astoria, to a Greek neighborhood where everyone spoke Greek.
We rode through the streets, our eyes and ears filled with the unbelievable sights and sounds of the great city. Beeping automobiles rushed past horse-drawn carriages. Clanging trolleys screeched along the rails. Buildings as tall as mountains seemed to reach the clouds. Movie houses with their bold marquees, one right after the other lined the streets. Oh, nephew, I can’t describe our happy feelings that day. Electric lights. Water faucets. Indoor toilets. All these modern miracles!
Irishmen, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Jews, Arabs, Greeks, Spaniards, Germans, Poles, Russians, Chinese, and Italians all living in harmony and going about their own business. Synagogues and churches of all the peoples stood in quiet testimony to mutual tolerance. This was surely the land of freedom, the place they called ‘heaven on earth.’
[…] The cabby left us off a Greek coffee house. The fellows there recommended a boarding house run by a Greek lady as a nice place to stay. Our ignorance of English made it difficult for us to find decent jobs. A furrier finally hired us for ten cents an hour. We stayed with him for a few weeks but soon got sick of working for nothing. Financially, we had been much better off back in Smyrna. We hadn’t come to America to be poor.
We heard of an Armenian settlement in Massachusetts, in a city called Worcester. And that, nephew, is where we decided to seek our fortune.
When we arrived in Worcester, we went directly to the Armenian coffeehouse. We met a mice man almost immediately, a Mr. Bagdasarian, who was a supervisor at a local shoe factory. They needed workers, he told us.
[…] The next day, we went to the factory were Mr. Bagdasarian was employed. He arranged for us to be hired on the spot, and we were to report for work the next morning.
Then Mr. Bagdasarian said, ‘You have been assigned to a department with a foreman who has a mean streak in him. That is why there are immediate openings. He likes to fire people. Do your best to get along with the bastard until I can find you openings in a better department.’
Early the next morning we went to work. Mr. Bagdasarian took us to our new department and turned us over to our foreman, Mr. Otto. Nephew, you should have seen this character. His large frame and powerful voice gave him the look of a wrestler. He was the spitting image of that German actor Erich von Stroheim, right down to the bald head, monacle, and cigarette holder. I swear he could have been the actor’s twin brother! The employees called him ‘Skin Dome’ behind his back.
Bagdasarian had warned us that Otto, who had immigrated to the United States from Germany ten years earlier, was hostile toward anyone who wasn’t from northern Europe. Otto especially disliked anyone whose color was a little on the darker side, like the immigrants coming from the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. He hated Armenians, Greeks, and Italians…. Which meant we were already on the German’s shit list even before meeting him. Of course, I prepared myself to be fired immediately because I knew your father’s big mouth would surely get us into some kind of trouble.
Otto had also served as an officer in the German army and had a military bearing. His loathing for us could be felt at once. We never had a chance with him. His monocle hung on a string that was tucked into his vest pocket. Whenever he came around our work stations, he would pop it into his eye and try to find deficits in our work. If he couldn’t find anything wrong, he’d bellow, ‘You fucking giavours are gonna burn in Turkey some day!’
The first time he used the word ‘giavour’ we were genuinely surprised. Appearantly, when Otto had served in the German army, he had been stationed in Turkey for a year as a staff officery. Germany and Turkey were drawing closer after the 1890s and there were military exchanges. […]
Skin Dome was an all-around rotten guy. The bastard would even take advantage of female employees, especially if they were young and pretty. He would force the girls to have sex with him in the storeroom. Although Otto’s routine was pretty well known throughout the factory, the guys in the front office looked the other way. They were only interested in production and making the stockholders happy. And the bastard really kept production and quality up. He ran his department with an iron fist. When quitting time came around, we were all so exhausted and nauseated with the stench of cowhide, we could barely make it home.
The beast’s sadistic side showed when he no longer desired a particular woman. If the woman turned out a defective shoe, he would throw it on the floor, spit and stomp on it, and then stare at her with his little pig eyes and growl, ‘You’re fired!’ How he savored standing there watching his victim crying. Then he’d strut away and look for another young thing to take her place.”
Harry Yessaian, Out of Turkey: The Life Story of Donik “Haji Bey” Yessaian (Armenian Research Center), 1994.

“But no matter how the work week went, the Sundays were good because then we made all day the holiday and took ourselves to Van Cortland Park [in the Bronx] where there was country and flowers. We would make fires and roast cubed lamb shashliks and walk on the grass and forget the factory. For one day anyway, we could enjoy to live like human beings.
From six o’clock onwards, every Sunday morning, the subway was packed full. Russians, Syrians, Greeks, Armenians, all kinds of peoples, carrying their grandpas and babies and gallon jugs and folding chairs and charcoal sacks and hammocks and samovars and lunch baskets and rugs. Everyone hurrying to their regular place in the park so they could start tea and lay out the lunch, to make the day last a long, long time.”
George Papashvily, Anything Can Happen (Harper & Brothers),1945.


released September 16, 2018

Transfers and partial restoration by Ian Nagoski, Halethorpe MD, September, 2018 with additions in 2021.
Cover photo from Ellis Island from the Brown Brothers.
Many thanks to Christine Gabaly for her contribution in memory of her grandparents Setrak and Siranoush Aijian.
Thanks also go Diane Kupelian in memory of her grandparents Mary and Vahey Kupelian.
Thanks also to Richard Breaux and Omar Qutteineh


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Canary Records Baltimore, Maryland

early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

An hour in clamor and a quarter in rheum.

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